A/N: Humans feature heavily in this story, though I try hard to make them worthwhile, contributing characters. Don't like, please don't read. You are warned. Thank you!
To those who leave intelligent reviews: Thank you very much, in advance. Under the new rules I have no way of responding to anonymous reviews, but I still appreciate them. So thanks!
On the other hand, don't feel guilty if you can't review. I wrote it; I liked it. That is sufficient. If you had fun reading this - if it made you smile or laugh - I wrote it for you. That is enough.
To flamers, don't bother. You won't hurt my feelings. You will waste your breath. Move on. Thank you!
Yeesh, I stink at this letter-writing stuff. I can never think of anything to say, so instead I sit here holding my pen and feeling like an idiot. Reminds me of literature class. You know, the one with Mrs. Rudowsky and the diary of Anne Frank? The horror.
Thanks for the postcard. Maybe next time your family goes somewhere, you can talk them into visiting me here in Boredom City instead of going to some dumb national monument, huh? It'd be nice to see a friendly face. I get a twinge every time a girl with glasses walks by.
Well, it's time for biology class. Read this slow 'cause it took me about an hour to write.
Can't wait for Christmas break,
P.S. You might as well give this postcard to Dad for me. He never checks the mail when I'm gone.
Shelley exhaled softly, her breath just barely visible in the chill of the morning, and tucked the letter into her pocket. She missed Amy too, but at least she didn't have to deal with homesickness.
She emptied her neighbor's bulging mailbox, too, and spent the next few minutes trying to tuck several pounds of advertisements and magazines under one arm without dropping anything. It was too bad she hadn't thought to check the mail yesterday, when the garbage was taken away; she could have pitched all the junk straight into the trash cans.
The mail subdued, she took a moment to enjoy the winter morning, pivoting slowly on one heel to take in everything. The sun hadn't been up long and dew was still thick on the grass and shepherd's purse. Oaks clustered in the gullies of the distant hills and dotted the north slopes. Nearer the road, a fragrant grove of eucalyptus screened the house from view and cast great patches of shade. Perched in the branches were several turkey vultures spreading their wings to catch the sun. Sparrows and mourning doves clustered on the fence wires, and somewhere down in the drainage ditch a killdeer was calling.
She angled across the grass to get back to the road -- something she normally avoided because of rattlesnakes, but the weather was too cold for reptiles to be active yet. She liked shortcuts as much as Amy did, so long as there wasn't any risk of bodily harm resulting.
As it turned out, there were other dangers lurking in the grass today. She felt something give underfoot an instant before a long, thin object whizzed up to deal her a very hard blow to the head.
The next thing she knew, she was on the ground in the middle of the scattered mail, ears ringing from the force of the blow. After the first shock of pain wore off, she put a careful hand to her forehead and realized that she was bleeding profusely. There was blood on her glasses, and it was dripping on her sweater.
She untied her right laces and wiggled out of that shoe, then peeled off the relatively clean sock and used it to staunch the bleeding. She thumbed her glasses out of the eyewear cord loops with her other hand, wiped them on the already stained sweater, fumbled for a moment trying to pop the cord loops back on the frame one-handedly, then gave up and just tucked the cord in a pocket. She wasn't planning on running anytime soon; in fact, she didn't even feel like getting up yet. It was hard to think, like walking uphill in mud, and the static-like noise in her head wouldn't go away.
Wondering absently just how much dew her pants were capable of absorbing, she put her glasses back on. The world came back into focus, resolving into individual water-spangled grass blades, wrinkled Safeway ads, and a rusty garden hoe. The end of the handle was splintered and sharp, probably crushed by a tractor tread. It had undoubtedly been thrown out yesterday with the other stuff, and the garbage men had missed it in the grass.
A pity she hadn't missed it as well, she thought sourly, pulling her shoe back on. It felt rough without the sock. She let the laces trail loose in the grass; at the moment, tying them was both impossible and unimportant.
Carefully, she drew her knees up to her chest and waited for the static and throbbing to subside, shivering just a little.
Had he had more time, Sky-Byte would have happily spent all of it at the city park. It had everything; lush silky pampas grass, well-kept sidewalks, and a creek-fed pond nearly obscured by ancient weeping willows. The tips of the willow wands trailed in the water and shimmered in the sun like emerald scales. It was a place for silence and meditation, quiet words and soft music.
As things were, however, he was rapidly being driven to distraction by the dual challenges of getting the other Predacons to understand what he had in mind and of keeping them from destroying the lovely place.
"So, Sky-Byte, what's our target?" Gas-Skunk was poking around in a discretely located trash container. When Sky-Byte wasn't looking, he crumpled a can and furtively pitched it at the ducks. They scattered across the water, splashing and quacking indignantly.
Dark Scream looked up from the tic-tac-toe board he'd drawn in the mud and nodded. "Yeah, what does Megatron want done today?"
Slapper dabbled one finger in the edge of the pond, stirring up a cloud of silt. "Is there some juicy source of energy just waiting to be stolen?"
"Silence!" Sky-Byte ordered, consulting the information he'd copied from Yahoo. "Today we are carrying out a distraction and evasion operation. Slapper, kindly do not muddy the water."
Slapper looked irritated but complied. "Who's going to distract who?"
"Yeah, what's the point?" Dark Scream peeled a branch off the nearest weeping willow and used it to beat the fuzz off a clump of cattails, sending the others into wheezing fits as they inadvertently inhaled the stuff. Sky-Byte stopped him by simply yanking the branch out of his hands and rapping him on the head with it.
"Leave those willows alone. Do you have any idea how long it takes for them to get that big?" Sky-Byte tossed the branch away impatiently. "Distraction is the point. I will slip in undetected and make off with our objective while you three cover for me."
"And what's our objective?" Slapper asked, while Dark Scream nursed his head and sulked.
"Sorry, that's classified," Sky-Byte answered loftily. And with his fingers crossed.
"What?" Gas-Skunk let the trash can fall on its side, sending a wave of paper cups, hot dog wrappers and empty soda cans tumbling down the bank. "I'm not risking life and limb for some unidentified objective!"
"I'll decide what's worth risking who for around here!" Sky-Byte thundered. "Now listen. Your part of the mission is so simple, even a trio of lamebrains like you ought to be able to handle it. I just need you to run around the city and cause random destruction and panic."
The three Predacons perked up instantly, the insult sailing right over their heads. "You mean, like, blow things up?"
"Yes, Slapper, that's exactly what I mean." Sky-Byte's reply sounded patronizing. He couldn't help it; they were so simple-minded sometimes. No appreciation for his genius at all. "Very good."
"Why didn't you say so?" Even Dark Scream looked enthusiastic. "I like this job already! How long do we get to party?"
"Just until I've completed my mission," Sky-Byte answered, relieved that they'd lost all interest in the objective's identity once offered the chance to make a mess. He wasn't overly anxious for Megatron to hear about this. "But stay away from the residential districts! You want the Autobots to follow you around, not kill you -- so leave the people alone."
There was a chorus of disappointed groans, but Sky-Byte was adamant; property damage only. "So then. Do you know what to do?"
"Oh yeah!" The Predacons all but wagged their tails. "Vandalism galore!"
"Right. Now get to it!"
They scattered out of the trees, leaving Sky-Byte standing alone. He took a moment to fish the garbage out of the pond and set the disposal can upright before setting off in a different direction, much more quietly than the others. Left to itself, the cattail fuzz blew across the lake shore and gathered in his footprints, eddying round and round in frantic circles.
"Any word from Skid-Z, T-AI?"
The little hologram turned away from her screens to tilt her head up at him. "No, Optimus. I thought he of all people would be there by now, but he hasn't called yet."
Optimus relaxed against the wall opposite the monitor bank and crossed his arms meditatively. He had just come in from a call, and it felt good to take the weight off his legs. "He's headed into a somewhat remote area," he reminded her. "He'll have to take it easy on the country roads. Have you learned anything new about the damaged building?"
T-AI turned her palms up as the screen behind her scrolled through to a few lines of information; everything she'd been able to get on the property in question. The fact that she was standing in front of the text did not much affect its readability. "Not really. County records indicate that it's been abandoned for years. Why would the Predacons want to damage an empty structure? It doesn't make any sense."
"Perhaps the damage was incidental," Prime suggested. He had a feeling that it wasn't vitally important, either way, but it was an interesting puzzle.
T-AI left her monitors and rose to Prime's eye level, ready to extrapolate on his suggestion. "Then the question becomes, what were they actually up to? I don't think --"
She broke off abruptly, two fingers pressed to her temple as she processed some signal only she could hear. Her expression changed swiftly.
"Optimus, three of the Predacons are attacking a small city!" She whirled and called up a topographical map with a gesture, then highlighted the area containing the city and magnified it.
Optimus straightened as he took in the information, electricity surging through his frame like adrenaline. "There's no refineries or power plants in that area. What could they be after?"
"I have no idea!" T-AI's transparent form radiated urgency as she continued to scroll through the information with her usual swift efficiency. "They're just showing up in random places, destroying whatever is nearby, and then moving on. A few people have been injured by flying glass, but the Predacons don't seem to be actively targeting them." Her report complete, T-AI stilled and looked to him for instructions, her hands poised and ready.
"That could change at any time." Optimus considered swiftly. There was always the chance that such an attack was a diversion, meant to cripple the Autobot's response to a quieter, deadlier assault. "Send Skid-Z and the Autobot brothers to patrol that city, and watch for any signs of Decepticon activity elsewhere."
"Right away, Optimus." She saluted smartly and turned back to the screens. One of them scrolled through several vehicles before settling on a predominantly white and magenta racecar. "I am recalling Skid-Z. Skid-Z, please respond. This is an emergency."
"Reading you loud and clear, T-AI." The young Autobot greeted her from the viewscreen with the relief of someone spotting a familiar landmark in the midst of an alien landscape. "I was just about to call you."
She blinked and double-checked his position, surprise jarring her slightly off the usual alert call format. "Hey, you're not anywhere near the warehouse. What are you doing way out there? Your log says you've been going around in circles."
"I got lost as soon as I left the freeway," he admitted, looking embarrassed. "It's like the middle of nowhere out here. I can't even find the right county, let alone the right building."
"Well, the warehouse can wait," she told him, focusing back on the business at hand. She filled him in on the Predacon attack. "Optimus wants you to take the space bridge to these coordinates, ASAP. Your speed can help us track the Predacons across the city and protect its residents."
"I'm on it!" Skid-Z answered enthusiastically, pleased to be given a high-speed assignment. "That is -- er, I will be, if you can help me get out of here."
Shaking her head at the fallibility of some mechs, T-AI gave Skid-Z directions to the nearest space bridge portal, then called the Autobot brothers.
Prowl emerged from the exit portal to find himself on a quiet street between the city park and a row of small shops and cafes. It would have been a pleasant place were it not for the damaged buildings and debris everywhere. An occasional breeze brought the coolness of water from somewhere in the park and ruffled the silver birches and lily-of-the-Nile plants clustered in front of the businesses. Save for the soft noise of rustling vegetation, there was no activity to be seen.
X-Brawn was waiting for him. "Howdy, cop-bot. You ready to go?"
"The sooner, the better," Prowl told him. "Where's Sideburn?"
"Already patrolling the Auto Mall," X-Brawn answered dryly.
Prowl snorted. "Just so long as he doesn't get distracted." He transformed and stepped over a prone bus stop sign to take advantage of the nearby intersection, scanning in all four directions. As far as he could tell, the area was deserted. Word of the Predacon rampage must have spread fast. "Looks like the civilians have taken cover," he noted. "Good."
He looked back at the portal, fragments of glass and concrete grating underfoot as his weight shifted. "Where's Skid-Z? I thought T-AI called him first."
"Maybe he got sucked into a race along the way," X-Brawn suggested. "No, wait -- I take that back. Here he comes."
The scout shot out of the space bridge a few seconds later, skidding to an uneven halt near the brothers. To their surprise, he immediately pulled up to the erstwhile bus stop to let an unsteady passenger climb out and flop on the bench.
"You a designated driver today, Skid-Z?" X-Brawn joked as the race car transformed.
"It's not funny," Skid-Z told him, sounding distressed. "I found her abandoned on the side of the road, right after T-AI's alert. I couldn't just leave her in such a dangerous area." He shuddered. "There were bullet holes in every sign and mail box."
X-Brawn chuckled. "It's not a country sign unless it's been used for target practice. She was probably safer out there."
"Are you sure she didn't live nearby?" Prowl asked. The kid had curled up on herself as if seeking invisibility, so he directed his question to the scout instead, not wanting to frighten her.
"I looked, Prowl, honest I did. All I saw was grass and trees."
"Hmm. That's strange. But it's easy to miss things when you're in a hurry." X-Brawn pulled into the intersection and nosed into the west street. "Well, little brother, I'm sure you can sort this out. I've got some Predabutt to kick. Yee-haw!"
The SUV gunned his motor and took off. Skid-Z watched him go, then turned back to Prowl, his face anxious. "But she was bleeding all over the place. Has she been used for target practice?"
"What?" Alarmed, Prowl stepped close and knelt for a better look, trying simultaneously not to invade the kid's personal space. He had learned a good deal about injuries and first aid from the Academy. "Let me see."
"No, I'm not shot," a disoriented Shelley managed at last, uncurling a little. She wasn't scared, just in pain -- not to mention majorly carsick from the scout's high-speed turns. It was with supreme effort that she engaged in the conversation going on over her head. "I just konked my head real good. I'll be fine."
The cop looked her over critically. "You don't have a concussion?"
She flapped one hand in a negative; it wouldn't feel good to shake her head just yet. "No, I don't think so."
"How many fingers am I holding up?" Prowl persisted.
She straightened her glasses and peered up at the Autobot, still too dazed to be surprised by anything. "None. Both hands are on your knees."
"Good." Prowl glanced up the street, aware that the clock was ticking. He was reluctant to leave her there alone, but her injury seemed relatively minor, and there was no telling how many other people might get hurt if they let the Predacons run loose. "We need to take care of something here, but we'll be back to take you home afterwards. Okay?"
"Okay," Shelley murmured, starting to feel self-conscious under their dual gazes. She hugged her knees close to her chest again and bid them adieu with a small wave. "See you later, alligators," she said lamely, feeling foolish.
Skid-Z threw Prowl a quizzical look. "What's an alligator?"
Shelley suppressed a smile. Prowl straightened with a sigh. "Come on, Skid-Z. I'll explain on the way."
It was a bad day to be a gumball machine, particularly if you happened to be stationed just outside a certain copy shop's doorway. Dark Scream picked up the candy dispenser and rattled it like a toy, then smacked it against the sidewalk to get at the gumballs. "Do you think Sky-Byte's done yet?"
"Goodness, I hope not." Slapper raked his claws across the gaudily painted window and watched in satisfaction as "3¢/Copy" shattered across the sidewalk and store carpet in a shower of brilliant orange and yellow fragments. "We were just getting started!"
"Yeah," Gas-Skunk agreed. He reaching past Slapper to drag a copy machine through the broken window, trailing wires across the sill. "I haven't had this much fun since I was a protoform. No pressure, no deadlines -- just wreck and rule until we hear the signal. He can take all day as far as I'm concerned."
"He might, but the Autobots won't. I doubt we have more than a couple of hours, so we'd better make the most of it. Hey, let me see that." Dark Scream dropped the gumballs to grab the copier. "I remember watching a salesguy use one of these on TV."
He poked at its buttons with the tips of his fingers as the other two paused to watch. Nothing happened.
Slapper looked disappointed. "How come it's not working?"
"I dunno. Is it out of toner?" Dark Scream hefted the copier up next to his ear and shook it experimentally until the swinging power cord smacked him in the face.
"Oh. Duh. Why'd you guys unplug it?" He propped the shop door open with the battered gumball machine, then threaded the power cord inside and plugged it into the nearest socket. "There. That's better." And he ran off a few blank copies.
"What's so great about that? It only gives you one sheet at a time. There's loads of paper in here!" Gas-Skunk pulled out a double stack of 20-pound Astroparche reams and started shredding them into multicolored confetti. "Look, party time! Haha!"
"I'm just making sure it works," Dark Scream retorted. He found a stray price list and copied it. "See? It makes exact replicas of whatever you put on the glass."
"Really?" Slapper shouldered close. "Cool! Let me try." He lifted the feed tray and slid one fingertip onto the glass.
"Uh, I think it's just for paper, Slapper," Dark Scream cautioned. "You're not supposed to use three-dimensional objects."
"How come?" the toad Predacon scoffed. "Look, it worked just fine for me!" And he held up his copy as proof.
"My turn already!" Gas-Skunk left the confetti to shove him aside. "I'm going to get a copy of my cute little face."
Dark Scream and Slapper shot him dubious looks.
"Well, as much of it as I can jam on here, at least," Gas-Skunk amended, and proceeded to measure his profile against the glass.
"I dunno, Gas-Skunk. You might want to --"
"Aiiii!" The skunk Predacon jerked upright and clutched at his optic, temporarily blinded by the scanning flash. The feed tray dropped with a bang, cracking the glass.
"...cover your optics," Dark Scream finished dryly, while Gas-Skunk glared at him through his other optic. "That light is pretty intense."
Shelley wasn't sure how long she sat there, the sun-warmed bench drying her damp bottom as the nausea subsided. It still hurt to think, so she just gazed vacantly across the street and watched Canadian geese foraging in the city park, their black necks curving and bobbing gracefully through the grass. She straightened with surprise when a familiar voice spoke her name.
She twisted around on the bench, still clutching the sock to her forehead. "...Amy?" she said incredulously. It hadn't occured to her that this might be that town.
Amy dropped her backpack with a thud, her face radiant with delight. "It is you! Goodness, I can't believe you're here! I was so homesick I could have -- hey, what happened? You've got blood all over your face!" Amy frowned concernedly as she took in Shelley's stained face and sweater.
"I stepped on one of Mr. Klump's old hoes," Shelley explained ruefully.
"Well for crying out loud, let's get you cleaned up! Stay right there," Amy ordered, and hopped nimbly through the window of a nearby restaurant, designated by a swinging sign as Carol's Cafe. Shelley scooted to a new section of hot bench to keep her pants drying. Getting up was the last thing on her mind right now.
Amy re-emerged a few minutes later, hauling a battered old first aid kit. "It was open on one of the tables. I think maybe someone got hurt by the glass."
"Amy," Shelley protested as her friend set the box down, "you can't just go and loot when you want something."
"I know Carol. She won't mind." Amy unlatched the dusty kit and sorted rapidly through the contents. "Besides, I think this qualifies as an emergency. How on earth did you get here?"
"Eh, it's kind of loopy. I don't think I was all there when it happened."
Amy peeled the sock away cautiously and grimaced. "I'm not surprised. That looks nasty." She produced a water bottle from her backpack. "Hold still. This may sting a little."
She dampened some napkins from a cafe table and sponged off the dried blood as gently as possible. "Huh. For so much blood, I expected the cut to be twice as big."
"It hurts quite enough as is, thank you."
"Hang in there, I'm almost done."
The first aid kit yielded a roll of gauze, so stained with age that Amy stripped the first three layers off before using the clean remainder to tie a medicated bandage over the wound. She crumpled the yellow gauze together with the dirty sock and threw them under a handy lily-of-the-Nile.
"That's littering," Shelley protested.
"It is not. I'm adding humus to the soil and enriching it for generations yet to come."
"You're supposed to enrich dirt with compost, not bits of gory clothing."
"Fine then," Amy sniffed, "you cram that icky stuff into your pocket."
Shelley contemplated the gross-looking sock briefly, then poked it farther under the plant leaves. "At least make sure it's out of sight."
"Whatever." Amy stepped back to inspect her handiwork. "There. How does that feel?"
Shelley traced the gauze coronet with a careful fingertip. "Comfortable," she told Amy. "Thanks. Do you think it'll get infected?"
"Nah. It looked like a pretty clean cut. You're going to have a real nice bruise, though."
"I'd hate to have nothing to show for my suffering," Shelley said dryly. "Wait a minute, though. I'm that thrilled you were here, but what are you doing running around?" She pointed at the sun, still climbing towards his zenith. "I didn't think your school let out this early."
Amy looked smug. "It doesn't normally. But after these big metal dudes showed up and started wrecking things, the staff decided we'd be safer at the fire station. I slipped out while they were herding all the students together. Hey, I wanted to see what the city looked like when aliens were invading," she added at Shelley's shocked look. She hauled her backpack onto the bench and patted it. "Best of all, I packed a lunch! Have a donut?"
Shelley peered in and raised an eyebrow fractionally, mindful of the cut. "You didn't know I would be here. Were you planning to eat the whole dozen?"
"Hey, I was in a hurry. Someone might have walked into the kitchen at any minute. I didn't have time to split packs." Amy sorted through various foodstuffs and pulled out a box of Hostess donuts. "Which, as it turns out, is a good thing, or you would have had to just sit there and watch me eat. You want powdered or chocolate? I've got some Kit-Kat, too."
"Ah, the cure for all ills." Shelley flicked her dark ponytail over one shoulder and pretended to tie a napkin around her neck. She hadn't had breakfast yet, and the contents of that backpack looked wonderful. She decided to worry about Amy's playing hooky later. "Hand it over."
Amy dangled the chocolate just out of reach. "But in between bites, you need to tell me how you magically appeared waaay out here in Dullsville."
Shelley leaned forward just enough to snatch the Kit-Kat. "Would you be surprised if big metal dudes entered the story?"